York Immigration Court in Springettsbury Township. (Photo: Paul Kuehnel, York Daily Record)
(York) -- Inside a secured courtroom at York County Prison, the man described his winding journey to escape Ethiopia: a story that involved everything from a $20,000 bribe at an airport to a weeks-long trek through Central America.
The man, who was in his 30s, wore an orange jumpsuit and spoke with the help of an interpreter. He testified that he'd occasionally worked as a freelance journalist for ESAT, an independent media outlet that his country's government views as a "terrorist organization."
"He's a target, and that's what I'm told," said Aziz Mohammed, a member of the ESAT Advisory Board, who flew in from Texas to testify on his behalf. He later referred to the man's journalism. "People who do this -- they risk their life."
Noting that there was a possibility of future persecution in Ethiopia, Judge Walter A. Durling granted the man, and his wife, asylum in the United States. But the result was more the exception than the rule in York Immigration Court.
In fiscal years 2011-2016, judges at York Immigration Court denied 83.3 percent of asylum claims, according to data from the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse at Syracuse University. That's more than 30 points greater than the national average.
At some of the highest rates in the nation, immigrants detained in Central Pennsylvania are suing to challenge their detention. Fueled by an evolving interpretation of immigration law by courts across the country, the Middle District of Pennsylvania has laid out an increasingly clear path for immigrants to challenge lengthy detentions for several years. A Syracuse University report details a 58 percent national spike in lawsuits filed by non-citizens between January 2016 and January 2017. These suits, called habeas corpus filings, challenge the government to prove a person should continue to be detained. Wochit
Lawyers who handle asylum cases in York Immigration Court repeatedly brought up that it's more difficult -- for a variety of reasons -- to represent someone who's being detained.
If an individual is charged as what the U.S. government calls an "arriving alien," which can include someone who turns him or herself in at a port or entry and asks for asylum, he or she is not eligible for bond, said Rosina Stambaugh, an immigration attorney in Spring Garden Township. It's difficult for people to gather evidence to meet their burden of proof for asylum when they are thousands of miles away from their country, she said.
These cases are also quickly moved along, she said.
"In the detained setting, it's so fast," Stambaugh said. "It makes it harder. The likelihood of getting granted is much less."
Meanwhile, she said, cases in which people are not in custody can take years to resolve.
Stephen Converse, an immigration attorney who's also in Spring Garden Township, said someone who might have a valid claim for asylum could be unable to adequately present it if they're locked up. At the same time, he said, there are also individuals who do not understand the process.
Converse said it's important to look at the denial rates for people who have counsel and those without representation. Nationally, in fiscal year 2016, judges denied asylum to people without representation at a rate of 90 percent, compared to 48 percent, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
Many individuals who are in a detention center also have criminal records, which could make them ineligible for relief, said Kathryn Mattingly, assistant press secretary at the U.S. Department of Justice Executive Office for Immigration Review.
In Orest Bezpalko II's experience, cases at York Immigration Court move quickly, so there's often not enough time for preparation. The system, he said, has always been "broken."
"I think overall, the judges are doing what they can do," said Bezpalko, an immigration attorney in Philadelphia. "And the attorneys are doing what we can do."
Some people could also be using a claim for asylum as a "last resort" if they're looking at deportation. But the basis of their case, he said, might not fit within the law.
Craig Shagin, an immigration attorney in Harrisburg, said detention centers, such as York County Prison, are not "lawyer friendly." For example, he said, there are not many rooms in which to meet with clients, and no one under 16 years old -- they could be a "valuable" witness in a case -- is allowed inside.
Judges, he said, have high caseloads and are "jammed" for time.
"You just don't have it," Shagin said. "That's part of what justice requires, so they're asked to do these things at a hyperspeed, and I think the quality of the adjudication suffers as a result."
"These are good, intelligent people who are doing their very best to keep up with it," he added.
In fiscal year 2016, York Immigration Court received 4,702 matters -- defined as cases, bond redeterminations and motions -- according to the Executive Office for Immigration Review.
Through February, there was a backlog of 542,411 pending immigration cases in the United States. That included 490 in York Immigration Court, according to the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse.
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